LIRNEasia is a regional ICT policy and regulation think tank active across the Asia Pacific

Thinking about data sovereignty with reference to China

Data sovereignty, or the desire of states to exert unfettered control over data associated with natural and legal persons under their jurisdiction, was seen as an issue with the highest salience at a foresight event I participated in Bengaluru a few days ago.

Several of us thought that the states will push for greater control in the immediate future and will be met with significant resistance from citizens and companies (varying across different kinds of data and different countries; health data may be easier than traffic data; states in big countries are more likely to prevail than those in small ones). We expected some kind of equilibrium to be achieved in around 5-10 years.

The effort by law enforcement authorities in the US to compel Microsoft to handover the contents of email stored in Ireland and the case of the Great Firewall of China came up in discussion.

Here is a discussion on recent developments in China:

This is worrying not just for people who want to surf the web without annoying obstructions. Many firms use their own in-house VPN systems or similar technologies to enable staff to gain secure access to corporate networks remotely. Officials say that tighter controls over VPNs will not impede such usage. But businesses worry that they may be forced instead to use government-authorised methods, including officially approved VPNs and leased lines, that are less reliable and easier to spy on than their own systems.

Those fears will only grow if a new law on encryption, presently being drafted, limits the extent to which companies are permitted to scramble sensitive communications—as some observers fear it might. Businesses have good reason to feel nervous. A cyber-security law that took effect in June allows authorities to review data, such as customer records, that firms wish to send to headquarters abroad.

As China’s increasingly autocratic leader, Xi Jinping, tightens his grip on power, it is becoming harder to remain optimistic that he will continue to tolerate circumvention of the firewall. He shows little sympathy with the complaints of foreign businesses about the difficulties they face in China. And he is clearly determined that the internet in China be made dissent-free, even if his sweeping efforts to achieve this irk members of the middle class on which the Communist Party depends for support.

What the Economist says.


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